Employee Experience in Retail and Hospitality

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Work, Employment & Society
http://wes.sagepub.com Employee experience of aesthetic labour in retail and hospitality Chris Warhurst and Dennis Nickson Work Employment Society 2007; 21; 103 DOI: 10.1177/0950017007073622 The online version of this article can be found at: http://wes.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/21/1/103

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Work, employment and society
Copyright © 2007 BSA Publications Ltd® Volume 21(1): 103–120 [DOI: 10.1177/0950017007073622] SAGE Publications Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore

Employee experience of aesthetic labour in retail and hospitality ■

Chris Warhurst
University of Strathclyde

Dennis Nickson
University of Strathclyde


Interactive service job growth in the UK is significant. Analysis of labour within these services has tended to focus on employee attitudes, framed through emotional labour. Such analysis is not incorrect, just partial. Some employers also demand aesthetic labour, or employees with particular embodied capacities and attributes that appeal to the senses of customers. Reporting survey and focus group data, this article explores aesthetic labour as it is experienced by interactive service employees in the retail and hospitality industries. Issues examined are recruitment and selection; image and appearance; uniforms and dress codes; skills and training. By extending awareness of aesthetic labour so that both employee attitude and appearance are empirically and conceptually revealed, the article extends understanding of the job demands made of employees in interactive services. KEY WORDS

aesthetic labour / appearance / attitudes / emotional labour / hospitality / retail / students



outine interactive services will provide most job growth in the UK for the foreseeable future (Wilson et al., 2004). Even if the much eulogized but little evidenced knowledge economy materializes, interactive service jobs involving the ‘person-to-person’ or ‘soft skills’ will need to underpin the ‘thinking skills’ jobs

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Work, employment and society Volume 21

Number 1

March 2007

of this new economy (Crouch, 2004). The retail and hospitality industries in particular will provide much of this job growth. This article seeks to examine employee experience of work and employment in these jobs, focusing on ‘aesthetic labour’ involving the attempt by some employers to lever competitive advantage through the use of employee appearance. The starting point for the research was awareness of a number of job advertisements featuring person specifications, listing necessary attributes such as being ‘well spoken and of smart appearance’, ‘well presented’ or just more bluntly ‘good looking’. From this awareness developed the concept of aesthetic labour, referring to the employment of workers with certain embodied capacities and attributes that favourably appeal to customers and which are then organizationally mobilized, developed and commodified (Nickson et al., 2001). Aesthetic labour has become translated in the popular press as employment based on ‘looking good’ and/or ‘sounding right’, and ‘lookism’ is even being suggested as the latest form of workplace discrimination (Oaff, 2003). Most current research examining employee experience of interactive service jobs is concerned with emotional labour...
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